How to Change Your Most Difficult Habits

How to Change Your Most Difficult Habits

The new year is slowly creeping up on us, and after the year we’ve all had, wow can we use a fresh start! Just like every year, now is a good time to change habits and pivot your life in the direction you want it. 

New Years brings with it a number of predictable things: anticipation, excitement….and new year’s resolutions.

The most common new year’s resolutions tend to involve habit change. Eating better, not drinking as much, quitting smoking, exercising, you name it. Habit change is front and center to new years’ resolutions, and we’re here to help.

Habit change is one topic I’m personally passionate about because so much of our physical and mental behavior is driven by habits. Change your habits, change your life.

(Habit change is such an important topic to us that it’s a bonus module in the Ascend program!)

The Problem

The problem is that most people miss one simple step in the habit change process, making it significantly more likely they’ll fail in changing their habits.

In this post, you’ll learn what that step is and how you can avoid skipping over it to set yourself up for much more success in the new year.

What is a habit?

We think we know good habits and we think we know how to break bad habits, but the truth is building habits takes time. You must create a habit loop. To fully understand the power of habit and this oftentimes missing step, you first need to understand the anatomy of a habit.

Habits have 3 components: 

  • A cue
  • The behavior itself
  • And a reward

Over time, our minds learn that certain behaviors (e.g., smoking) will get us a reward (e.g., reduction in anxiety). Furthermore, they learn to associate certain cues with the absence of the reward (e.g., getting in your car).

A fundamental thing you need to understand about your mind is that it’s a problem-solving machine. Habits are one major way it solves problems.

Your mind recognizes that you’re missing out on or lacking a reward, and it attempts to get you that reward by doing the behavior that’s reliably gotten you the reward in the past.

The behavior itself (smoking) isn’t the reward. The behavior is what we do to get the reward (reduction in anxiety).

Here’s the thing, the cue is what tells your mind that you’re missing out on a reward.

Without the cue, the whole equation falls apart and your habit disappears.

Find your cues

Most people have no idea what the cues of their habits are. They set the new year’s resolution to stop smoking and immediately try to grit their way through it.

And they fail.

My initial piece of advice for people trying to stop a ‘bad habit’ is always the same: spend time at the beginning learning your cues.

Don’t skip this step. 

Taking time to form new habits or end bad habits is a worthwhile endeavor. If you bite your nails, try using deep breaths and pausing when you find the temptation. If you want to get around to reading that bestselling book, leave it somewhere convenient and schedule a small amount of time to get started.

Before you dive in and attempt to use willpower to change your habit, set yourself up for success by learning and understanding the cues that make you want to do the behavior in the first place.

Maybe you are trying to break a habit like social media scrolling. By setting smart goals that are measurable you will be able to find out if you are stuck in a loop cue, which habits stick, and what habit forming behavior you need to break. This is something that is measurable. You can move the app you are most addicted to, and then notice how often your thumb unknowingly drifts to that part of your screen when you open your phone. Change your loop cue, break your habit! 

How to find your cues

Before you begin trying to change your habit, spend a few weeks paying attention to what the cues of that habit are.

Cues come in a variety of forms, but here are some of the most common:

  • Time – I always get the urge to smoke first thing in the morning.
  • Location – I always get the urge to smoke when I get in my car.
  • Preceding event – I always get the urge to smoke after I’ve eaten a meal.
  • Emotional state – I always get the urge to smoke when I’m bored / anxious / etc.
  • Other people – I always get the urge to smoke when I’m around my friend who also smokes.

Spend some time in ‘personal ethnography,’ which is just a fancy way of saying observe your own behavior and urges and attempt to diagnose what cues might be present that signal your mind that you’re missing out on a reward.

The more you do this, the more you’ll see common cues pop up.

The more clearly you understand your own cues, the more readily you’ll be to anticipate and work through the urge to engage in the bad habit the next time it arises.

“Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
 – James Clear

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